HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) – Ray Didinger was not the first 10-year-old boy to be enthralled with Hershey. But he may be the first who preferred watching NFL players sweat on a dusty field to the allure of roller coasters and cotton candy at nearby Hersheypark.

Theater audiences in and around Philadelphia are glad that he did. Hershey patrons will soon understand why, when “Tommy and Me” comes to Hershey Theater August 18-20.

“This is the special one, this is the special one,” said Didinger Friday, “To come to Hershey, to bring the story back to where it truly originated, in this theater that’s just steps away from where he and I actually met for the first time. This is the one in the back of mind I always hoped we would do.”

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The Didinger family’s summer sojourns in the 1950s to Chocolatetown, from the Philadelphia suburbs, were focused on football and the training camps of the Philadelphia Eagles. It was all the amusement young Ray needed. He watched practice, met players, and collected autographs.

And he had his favorite. Wide receiver Tommy McDonald, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound dynamo whose diminutive stature defied conventional wisdom about NFL players. He was too short, they said. He was too small, they said. And, to Didinger’s delight, he was too good for most opposing defenses. At training camp, Didinger got more than McDonald’s autograph. He carried Tommy’s helmet to the practice field and the two carried on conversations.

McDonald became one of the most prolific receivers in Eagles’ history. Didinger became a prolific sports writer and broadcaster who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame for his reporting on the league. He also became a relentless advocate for McDonald’s induction into the Hall. Didinger harangued and cajoled fellow voters, a constant cheerleader of Tommy’s candidacy.

It paid off. Tommy McDonald was enshrined in 1998, largely because of Didinger’s arm twisting. The writer, who once carried McDonald’s helmet to practice, delivered the induction speech. It is the stuff of Hollywood legends but it is true. “Tommy and Me” was first a book and now a play. But don’t dismiss it, like so many scouts did McDonald, as being just a football story.

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“It’s a story about loyalty,” said “Tommy and Me” Director Joe Canuso. “It’s about friendship. It’s about having a dream. It’s about having your friends help you realize your dreams. Its about a lot of things other than sports.”

There is a Q and A session with Didinger and the audience after every performance. Didinger says inevitably someone says they weren’t enthusiastic about coming to the play, thinking it just another football story but then realized they were mistaken.

“It’s not really about football,” Didinger said. “It’s really a love story. And it’s a story about two things: it’s a story about relationships and about dreams coming true.”

Didinger retraced some of the steps he took as a 10-year-old Friday and reminisced about players, whose rooms had no air conditioning, sitting outside near the fountain.

“To know we’re actually gonna come here in August and do the play literally steps from where I met Tommy McDonald for the first time is really remarkable,’ he said.

Former NFL player and current analyst Ross Tucker will moderate the Q and A on opening night, August 18. I will facilitate the questions on Friday, August 19. Former New York Giants GM Ernie Acorsi, a Hershey native, will do the Saturday matinee.

Didinger (left) and Owens (right) standing where Didinger and McDonald met

“Tommy and Me” is to Eagles’ fans what Rudy is to Notre Dame fans. But it will pack an emotional punch even for non-fans.

“I’ve seen this show now every night for six years and I cry every night when I watch it,” said Canuso. “It’s a very heartfelt story.”

McDonald, who passed away in 2018, remains the smallest player ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. “He was just 5-foot-9 but he’s larger than life,” gushed Didinger.

Tickets went on sale Friday, available here.

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